Canadian history is inextricably connected to geography. And Canadian fiction seems endlessly absorbed with a reckoning between the land and the humans who exploit it. Saskatchewan’s David Carpenter has staked out one indelible corner of this geography in his novels and stories, which find his characters struggling – often unsuccessfully – to tame nature or bend it to their whims and desires. The people in Carpenter’s fiction – fishers, hunters, trappers – tend to work outdoors and locate their identities in their relationships (be they symbiotic or adversarial) with nature.
The notion of identity is central to the protagonist of Carpenter’s latest novel, a transplant from England who falls in with a group of adventurers panning for gold in the wilds of Northern Canada in the early part of the 20th century. “If there was one question that had rankled throughout his life more than any other,” Carpenter writes, “it was this one. Who you gonna be?”
The answer to this question, which could serve as the novel’s key concern, is not immediately apparent. Carpenter’s protagonist is born Joseph Burbidge, the son of a Yorkshire miner. Known variously as Joey, Joe, and Joseph, the boy is also urged to change his surname after his father dies and his mother remarries. Joe’s stepfather insists the boy adopt his name, Eggers, which hails from a more upper-crust lineage and will be advantageous for placing Joe in school. The adopted name will also come in handy years later, when Joe is forced to fake his own death after killing a man in the Barrens, north of Yellowknife.
Joe’s victim works for Buster Krahn, a venal gold speculator who becomes an ad hoc rival in pursuit of a lucrative claim in the region where Joe and his partner, Stinky Riley, are searching. A colourful character (and the book’s principal villain), Buster is a “butter-ass bastard” whose breath stinks of “whisky, rancour, and creamed corn,” and who thinks nothing of uprooting competitors’ claim markers then returning to the government office to register the claim as his own. It is in the process of trying to protect his (and Stinky’s) moral right to the rich vein of gold they have discovered that Joe commits the murder that will haunt him for the rest of the book.
The killing of the rival prospector’s sidekick, and its immediate fallout, comprises the most dramatically effective portion of the narrative. Here all of Carpenter’s subjects in the novel coalesce: the intensity verging on madness that accrues to the single-minded pursuit of gold and the wealth it can bring; the struggles of humans against a bitter and inimical natural world and against each other; and – yet again – the notion of identity. When Joe stumbles across a cabin in the wilderness, he identifies himself to the owner using the name of the man he’s killed: “‘I’m not a Swede,’ said Joe. ‘I’m not a limey either. Family’s Norwegian actually but I’m not anybody. Just a traveller looking to warm up.’”
Unfortunately, this section of the novel falls dead centre and accounts for only a small portion of what is, in total, a sprawling, episodic story that feels simultaneously too long and not nearly long enough. Part of this is due to the nature of Carpenter’s narrative, which packs in so much incident over such a long span of time that much of the material is glossed over or underdeveloped. Joe and Stinky’s discovery of the valuable claim, for example, results from a map Joe is provided by an elderly native woman. The woman is the mother of Lucy Castaway, with whom Joe embarks on an abbreviated relationship after the two meet by chance in a hotel lobby. The meeting itself feels arbitrary and coincidental, and Lucy and her mother appear briefly then vanish from the book altogether, which seems passing strange for characters of such signal importance to the plot.
Many of the secondary characters operate in this way, appearing and disappearing at whim, or when it is convenient to move the story forward. These coincidences are not organic to the novel, but are more like artificial authorial contrivances that denude the narrative of power and rob the reader of satisfaction. Buster, that entertaining malcontent with the creamed-corn breath, dies in a house of ill repute, an occurrence that is reported second-hand about two thirds of the way through the book.
Even Joe’s own experience is frequently sketched in obliquely. He abandons his wife on their honeymoon in London on the eve of the Second World War, because he is afraid that his true identity is about to be discovered. He enlists in the army but doesn’t see combat (becoming, in his words, “a bloody toff journalist” instead); the descriptions of this period read like outlines rather than fully developed scenes. In the third part of the book, set back in Canada during the postwar period, Joe becomes almost an ancillary character in his own story, fading into the background over the course of pages that are slack and anticlimactic.
At the end of the novel’s first part, Joe is rescued from being hanged by a pair of sympathetic natives. As he is lowered to the ground, Joe imagines the three of them as “a triad of figures in soapstone, a sculptor’s approximation, perhaps, of Canadian history.” Carpenter’s ambition in capturing at least an approximation of Canadian history as it unfolded in the gold-addled Canadian north during the early to middle 20th century is admirable, but the result of this ambition is a novel that is too overstuffed to be satisfying as a coherent whole